How to Get Out of a Rut

Psychological Strategies to Get Unstuck

A woman feeling stuck in a rut

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We all go through periods where we feel like we might be stuck in a rut. It can seem like you are just going through the motions, treading water, or jogging in place. You're doing the same old things, but it doesn't seem like you are actually getting anywhere. Things that used to excite you may start to feel less interesting. Instead of moving forward toward your goals, you're just digging yourself deeper and deeper into the same spot.

Feeling like you are in a rut can be frustrating, but there are things that you can do to figure out why you are experiencing this and to get motivated and excited again. Learn more about how you can get out of a rut.

Signs That You Are Stuck in a Rut

Being "stuck" is something that you may not even notice at first. These feelings often build slowly over time. Day after day, you might follow your same routines. Eventually, it feels less like you are working toward something in the future and more like you are just killing time. It may only be once your emotions seem to become almost unbearable that you are finally able to identify the cause of your malaise.

So what are some of the signs that you are feeling stuck?

  • Every day seems the same. You might even have trouble remembering what day of the week it is. Is it Monday, or is it Friday? It doesn’t matter because your days feel indistinguishable from one another.
  • You feel like you're just trying to get through another day. Your goal is just to keep putting one foot ahead of the other until the day is done.
  • You feel unmotivated. You might want to take on new projects or engage in creative tasks, but even when you try to do so, it feels like your well of ideas and motivation has run dry.
  • You feel unfulfilled. You want to try new things, but you just aren't sure what they are or how you would do them. Just finding the motivation to get started seems impossible.
  • You want to change, but fear the temporary discomfort that may come with it. You know that changing things up will make you happier in the long run, but you keep sticking with the status quo because it means you won't have to risk any pain or failure.

One thing to remember is that sometimes these feelings may be more than just being stuck in a rut. Such feelings may actually be symptoms of something more serious, such as persistent depressive disorder (PDD). This mild but chronic mood disorder is characterized by symptoms that are less severe than depression but can often be longer-lasting.

People often experience these symptoms for years without recognizing that what they are feeling is actually a form of depression. Low mood, decreased energy, loss of interest, and loss of pleasure are all common symptoms of this condition. If you suspect that you may be experiencing PDD, be sure to talk to your physician or therapist about what you have been feeling.

Finding the Source of Your Rut

While you might recognize that you are stuck in a rut, you might not be sure of what the next step should be. One thing to remember is that not all ruts are the same. It is important to figure out what is causing your feelings of discontentment before you make any drastic changes in your life.

You might feel like you are in a rut with your romantic partner. Or perhaps your job is the source of your feelings. Your health, your family situation, your friendships, your hobbies, and even your home can be sources of such feelings of unhappiness.

Once you understand a little better why you are feeling such things, don't criticize or berate yourself. It's easy to minimize the problem and try to make your feeling seem trivial. "I have a great life, I don't have a right to feel this way," you might think. Such thoughts can be counterproductive and keep you trapped in your rut for even longer. Things may be just fine as they are, but if you are not satisfied with the status quo, it's time to look for ways to change things up and regain your spark.

The first step toward improving your state of mind is to acknowledge what you are feeling and then start looking for steps you can take to get unstuck.

How to Get Out of a Rut

So what are some things you can do to break the negative cycle and move forward? Here are just a few different ways to get out of a rut.

Take Care of Yourself

When you feel like you might be stuck in a rut, one of the first steps you should take is to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. Self-compassion can be critical to mental wellness, so start by doing a quick assessment of how well you've been taking care of you. Have you been eating well? Sleeping enough? Are you spending enough time with people who care about and support you?

If something seems to be lacking in the self-care department, now is the time to address it. Healthy food, adequate sleep, daily exercise, and social support are all essential components of both physical and emotional health. If some of these areas need to be improved upon, start looking for ways that you treat yourself a little better. Taking care of yourself helps ensure that you have the energy you need to stay focused and excited about your life.

Change Your Routines

It can be difficult to move forward or branch out in a new direction if you just keep following the same routines day in and day out. People tend to be creatures of habit, and sometimes that feeling of being stuck in a rut can stem from a sense of boredom. Look for ways that you can change things up and add some different experiences to each and every day.

Some things you might try:

  • Strike up a conversation. This can be a great way to expand your social connections and learn interesting things about the people around you.
  • Have some fun. Spend some time engaged in an activity you truly love, whether it's hanging out with friends or pursuing a hobby you are passionate about. Set aside time during the week where you can focus your energy on having a good time.
  • Try something new. Whether it's taking a new route to work, watching a new show, or signing up for some sort of class. Exploring the world around you in new and different ways can help add some zest to your life.
  • Be spontaneous. If you are bored with some aspect of your life, start trying to live in the moment. Do things that are not carefully pre-planned. Say yes to new experiences and don't be afraid to do the unexpected.

Try Heading Outdoors

Researchers have found evidence that being in nature can have a positive impact on the brain. For example, one study found that taking a walk in nature reduced self-referential rumination, a behavior that can increase the risk of depression. Another study found that nature walks were associated with decreased depression, lowered stress, and increased mental well-being.

Not only can being out in nature increase your sense of mental wellness, studies have shown that it can help enhance creativity as well. So the next time you are feeling bogged down, try heading outdoors for a walk. Let go of the thoughts that have been circling around in your brain, and pay attention to the world around you. Allow yourself to relax, think of new things, and enjoy the beauty you see. If nothing else, it is a great way to get some exercise and return to your everyday life with a renewed sense of wonder.

Find Your Purpose

It can be easy to fall into a rut when it feels like you are not really working toward anything. Having things to look forward to and a sense of purpose are key ingredients for motivation. This can small things like having plans for Friday night to look forward to all week. It can also involve much larger life goals related to your relationships and career.

Research has also found that having things to look forward to in the future can help people better cope with troubles in the here and now. Psychologists have long recognized the importance of the ability to delay gratification. By holding out for larger rewards in the future, people are able to build better self-control and stronger willpower.

In one study, chronic gamblers were asked to think about upcoming events such as a future vacation. As a result, these participants were better able to curb their impulse to gamble. By thinking about the future, they were able to focus on their long-term goals rather than simply getting carried away by a desire for immediate gratification.

So what can you do to give yourself something to look forward to?

  • Make plans. There is a great deal of power in anticipation. Sometimes you might find yourself looking forward to existing events, such as the release of a movie or your favorite holiday. But you can also create these moments intentionally. Plan a vacation, even if it's just taking a day trip to a local spot. Call up some friends and make plans for Friday night. Give yourself things to look forward to and get excited about.
  • Don't overlook the little things. Even small daily and weekly rewards such as being able to go to your favorite place for lunch or tuning into your favorite TV show once a week are great ways to build a sense of anticipation for the future.
  • Volunteer to serve others. Having a sense of purpose can also come from helping others. This can mean helping the people in your life such as your friends or loved ones, or by looking for ways that you can contribute to your community. Participating in your church, volunteering with a local organization, or even engaging in political activism are ways of contributing something useful to the world. Such activities can help give you a sense of greater purpose and meaning.

    Work On Boosting Your Motivation

    Sometimes getting out of a rut seems to happen spontaneously. For example, you might feel stuck in a rut for a while when something suddenly click into place and the feelings just vanish.

    In other cases, you might need to take a more active approach. If you've been trying some of the previously mentioned strategies but still feel like you are just going through the motions, it may be time to focus on your motivation.

    Some things you can do to actively get yourself motivated, even when you don't feel particularly interested or excited about what you are doing:

    • Take small steps. Pick something that you think you might like to pursue, such as a new hobby or workout program. Start small with something that you know you can accomplish, yet is just outside of your current skill level. Don't wait for motivation or inspiration to strike, however. Just get going. Even if you really do not want to, force yourself to get through the first step. Once you have mastered it, pick another small step that is just outside your current skill level. Master it. Keep going, and eventually what you may find is that you are no longer just going through the motions, you are actually feeling involved, excited, and interested in learning more.
    • Reward yourself. Positive reinforcement can be helpful in the early stages when you are really struggling to find the motivation. Promise yourself some sort of reward for starting the task and continue to reward yourself after completing each step for a time. After a while, pull back on the rewards, but promise yourself a larger reward once you have finally reached your goals. These rewards can get you started and help generate greater interest in what you are working on.

      A Word From Verywell

      Feeling stuck in a rut can be frustrating, but there are steps you can take to add a sense of novelty, adventure, and excitement back into your daily routines. If you begin to sense that what you are feeling might be more than simply being stuck in a rut, you might be experiencing something more serious. Loss of interest in things you formally enjoyed, difficulty feeling happy emotions, and a sense of hopelessness may actually be symptoms of depression. If you suspect that what you are feeling is more than just being stuck in a rut, be sure to talk to your doctor about your symptoms. 

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